Trinidad & Tobago: No Simple Highway

University lecturer and environmentalist Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh, who began his hunger strike on November 15 outside the Prime Minister's office as a protest against the construction of one part of a billion dollar highway project in southeastern Trinidad, has the blogosphere talking about much more than a road – many netizens see his dissidence as a plea for transparency in the use of public funds and a demonstration against the cavalier manner in which the electorate's concerns are managed by those in public office.

Guanaguanare is saddened by how the whole drama appears to be playing out:

I do not want Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh to leave us now, and certainly not for citizens who are not sufficiently compelled to take care of their own business and judging by the online comments, many others who intend not to remember his ultimate sacrifice past this Christmas season. I want Dr. Kublalsingh to continue to live and fight for his country. This world is overrun by the ignorant, the crass and the ignoble and I seriously doubt that his death will have any impact on the jaded and spiritually dead. I am ashamed to have concluded that in this valley of death where life is cheap another person's demise will not provide the much needed tipping point.

Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh talks with lawyer Gillian Lucky.

He may be right. What many feel should have been a tipping point around which citizens could rally is, in some online forums at least, turning into a mockery. Fueled by the government's continuing efforts to humiliate the man and discredit his cause, one local radio station even posted a clearly photoshopped image of Dr. Kublalsingh sitting at a table in a fast food outlet. Addressing these types of mean-spirited pranks in another post, the blogger adds:

I was among those who, valuing Dr. Kublalsingh's life more than this country, more than this cause…more than my beautiful and sometimes ugly countrymen, more than this government, urged him to let this cup pass from him. But perhaps being more optimistic, more hopeful and more generous than even those who love him and certainly more than those who continue to deride and dismiss him, he put our concerns aside and persevered patiently with his lesson.

He has reminded me that although this is what we have come to accept as normal, it is unnatural, if not calamitous for any man to believe that he has an existence separate from his country, from just causes…from his countrymen and from his government. In this ‘eat ah food’ world, he has done the unthinkable and little wonder then that the shock of it all has thrown many into disarray and has caused some of us in high and low places to retreat to the usual refuges of cynicism, disrespect, vitriole, puerile humour and callousness.

In turning his back on the opiate of the ubiquitous pot of pelau, he has threatened to drag us also from the warm comfort of that prison of belly full and asked us to reflect upon other forms of nourishment of which we have been starved.

Thank you, Dr. Kublalsingh for allowing the nation once again to witness that the truth means NOTHING to many. Not only will they avoid it to save their skins and that of their cohorts but they will avoid it even when a fellow citizen's life is on the line. They will avoid it in the quiet of their own consciences and they will ineluctably avoid it even when the whole interested world's gaze is upon them.

kid5rivers has a different point of view:

What Dr Kublalsingh was saying then is, no matter what, concerning the issue he and his Reroute Group raised, it was their way, or the highway: the project must be stopped! In other words, he and his group were prepared to enter negotiations with the Prime Minister or any government official, only on the implacable ground that they were not going to yield or give any quarter to the government…in short, any continued discussion or negotiations they'd have with anyone, would be shallow and merely for show.

To the contrary, the Facebook page of the Highway Re-Route Movement, which is the lobby group that Dr. Kublalsingh represents, posted a note late yesterday that is very clear about its intentions:

The Highway Re-Route Movement (HRM) has always been, and is, in favor of the construction of the San Fernando to Point Fortin highway.

However, the HRM has difficulty with the Debe to Mon Desir link to the main highway which will push through the Oropuche Lagoon. It is this particular segment of the highway for which they recommended a substantive review including a social impact assessment, a hydrological study, and a cost-benefit analysis of the proposed construction. A review of these proposed works by an Independent body is what had been requested, and was agreed to by the Prime Minister.

On March 16th 2012, the Prime Minister met with the HRM led by Dr Kublalsingh, and by calling for a halt on all construction and a technical review, acknowledged that there were legitimate technical concerns that needed to be addressed. Today, Dr Kublalsingh is on the 13th day of the hunger strike, to protest the Government's failure to provide the independent review.

The HRM was subsequently called to two meetings. At the first meeting, the HRM was prevented from bringing their own technical team to meet with the Government’s technical team and it is because of this that the HRM left the meeting. At the second meeting the HRM was given a five-page document with photographs and one-line statements. At no stage have the technical reports been produced in the areas of hydrology, enviroinmental and social impact, or cost benefit. Although construction works were slowed for a while it has never stopped.

The Government claims to have satisfied the promise of the technical review. The HRM has called the process a farce and a public relations gimmick.

kid5rivers maintains that:

The hardheaded, bigoted, self-righteous approach has no relevance in the modern-day arrangements of governance, policy-making, negotiations and societal interaction. In the end, in fact, throughout, such bigotry contaminates to the extent where the wounds inflicted never heal. Having observed the retrogressively-mutating charades of Dr Kublalsingh regarding the construction of the Point Fortin Highway, I cannot endorse his fast.

Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh attempts to get up during his hunger strike.

The Highway Re-Route Movement's response?

After years of writing letters, placarding, campaigning, camping on the site, being arrested, and witnessing the Prime Minister renege on her commitment, Dr Kublalsingh has embarked on a hunger strike, eating no food and drinking no water. As at November 27th, Dr Kublalsingh would not have had any food to eat or water to drink for 13 days. The health and potentially the life of Dr. Kublalsingh remains significantly at risk.

Via the United Voice blog, which is known for being sympathetic to the current administration, a supporter “of the proposed highway from San Fernando to Point Fortin since it was first announced by Dr. Eric Williams in his Budget Speech of January 1981″ wonders whether Dr. Kublalsingh's hunger strike “has given him the attention he had not been getting up to now”:

Dr. Kublalsingh had engaged in popular and successful protest actions against the proposed smelters and other projects. Could it be his hubris now that is causing him to take action in a cause that is clearly lost?

It is noteworthy that although Dr. Kublalsingh does not reside in the area, none of the people who do have decided to join him in his hunger strike. Should he not survive his self-inflicted torture, will they will take their ‘settlement’ and move on?

The same blog posted this contrasting perspective in an open letter to the Prime Minister:

A PM is first and foremost a leader, and empathy and magnanimity are key qualities of a high performance leader.

Empathy means placing yourself in the shoes of citizens to understand where they are coming from…and why.

A PM must be magnanimous and show care and understanding even if she feels the person is wrong or misguided. This is what effective leadership is about. The argument that fasting by one prominent citizen will lead to copycat action is flawed.

You need to be a good manager and manage well this fasting issue. Laughing or scoffing and telling him to listen to elders is not the answer.

If Kublalsingh dies, your government will most likely fall as it will be extremely difficult to govern! Out of sheer political survival, you need to make sure that he stays alive.

So, dear Prime Minister, reroute yourself…and make sure that the man does not die…and if you did give your word to the group, honour your commitment. An effective leader’s word is a key element of trust. A Nation needs to be assured that it can trust its Prime Minister.

A supporter of Dr. Kublalsingh holds a placard outside the Prime Minister's office.

Political blogger The Eternal Pantomime has been supporting Dr. Kublalsingh from the outset. Here, she republishes what the Leader of the Opposition had to say about the issue and here, hosts a guest column by a blogger who is “a native of the area under the direct orbit of the Debe – Mon Desir stretch [of proposed highway]:

Let me make it unequivocally clear to all and sundry that I WANT that stretch. I want if BADLY. The ability to drive to Port-of-Spain without passing on the South Trunk Road will make sense only to those of us who have lived with the increasing burden of traffic along that road.

I also wish to make it unequivocally clear that while I want the Debe – Mon Desir stretch, I remain resolutely opposed to the secrecy, nepotism, and corruption that seems to be part of the mix right now. Unconfirmed figures are popping up on facebook that seem to suggest that the cost per mile to build that stretch is way above and beyond anything that obtains anywhere else in the world. If at the end of it all, this issue of cost is not interrogated, we would have missed a major opportunity to continue the process of fighting back against the systemic corruption that has bedeviled all admininstrations of this country and kept us back from being the leading beacon in the WORLD that we can be.

Can we use this Highway impasse as another opportunity to interrogate ourselves as a country and start holding our leaders to a higher standard??

That may be the very question that Dr. Kublalsingh wants answered.

The photos used in this post are by Rhoda Bharath, used with permission.


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